Portugal. The Man's Zach Carothers on making mainstream music -- "the kind that is good"
To be a member of the newly changed lineup of Portugal. The Man (due tonight at the Ogden Theatre) is to be spontaneous, aggressively creative and relatively okay with placing a full stop in the middle of your band name. It also means maintaining a breakneck speed of records (one a year) and shows (hundreds a year) with little reward in the way of time off. When asked if the band has free time, bassist Zach Carothers can only come up with one day a year: Christmas.
So you reap your rewards elsewhere: To be a part of the Alaska-raised, Portland-based quartet is to experiment in more than just psychedelica and grammar. Still growing into their maturing relationship with Atlantic, their first mainstream label, the guys are better backed, produced and inspired than they have been in six albums and the same number of years.
If all goes well, they hear, they're in talks for some vacation time this summer. Carothers will believe it when he sees it. Before the band's biggest Denver show to date, we spoke with the longtime bassist and backing vocalist about Portugal's practice routine, self-imposed pressure and the perks of sharing a label with Led Zeppelin (there are many).
Westword: Do you remember your last Denver experience?
Zachary Carothers: We come through a lot. Last time we did two nights at the Bluebird, and it was phenomenal. It was really fun. All the crew that works there is really awesome, and we're friends, so we had a barbecue and set up a projector and watched movies through the PA system all day.
Do you have a part two planned for this trip?
We're actually early; we're in Broomfield right now. We're playing the Ogden this time, of course, so the venue is different, but hopefully we can stop by and visit those guys. And we'll be going to see Black Keys tonight, which we're really excited about.
With the theme going throughout the album, Portugal's last record, In the Mountain, In the Cloud, feels like an even greater escape than the band's previous work. Is there a pressure to consistently outdo your last efforts?
We do put a lot of pressure on ourselves, especially with that one. With being on Atlantic now, with Led Zeppelin and Aretha and Ray Charles, it's like, "Holy shit, we better crank it out." The last record damn near killed us. It was what would have been the end if we hadn't made it through. We didn't play well, we didn't sound well, and we didn't get along well. I don't know exactly what it was, but everyone got burned out, and we were just putting too much pressure on ourselves. It was a combination of a lot of small things that put is in a bad vibe in the studio.
So this time, we took our time in the studio. Our management knows we love to hang out in San Diego, so they let us out there, and we went into the studio with no management and no oversight and no deadlines. We went to the beach every morning and then kind of moseyed into the studio at the crack of 1:30 before eventually putting it together in Seattle.
In a week and a half, we finished the entire second half of the record. In the end, we got Andy Wallace (producer for Nirvana, Jeff Buckley) to mix it. It was pretty unbelievable. Just getting to work with him was fun: We weren't there with him; we were scattered all over the place around Christmas. John and I were in Alaska, and the other boys were with family in different states.
But basically, no matter what time of night it was, we'd get a mix back and have to send in feedback within half an hour. I'd be shopping with my mom or something and then get an e-mail on my phone and have to pull over and give feedback immediately. He did some really interesting stuff and made it a really visual mix. When you're watching a live show, you have to have a wide-angle Kubrick shot of the entire stage, and it's this very moving mix we like a lot. Some things appear and then pop out for a while and then go quietly back into the shadows and wait.
So you worked on mixes during your Christmas break? Does Portugal. The Man have any time off?
No. I'd love to have some time off. It does get hard and stressful, but we're very lucky to be in the situation that we're in. We're going to continue to work hard and not take that for granted. Even if we're not in the studio, we're still recording and playing every day. We're always up to something.
There's a rumor of us actually having time off this summer. I won't really believe it until it happens, but there are at least times where we're working from home. Basically the only day I know for sure that I don't have to do anything band-related is Christmas Day.
Sometimes we're kind of weekend warriors, where we'll fly out for the weekend festival and come back. But this summer, I might actually get to go down to Alaska and say hi to my family and do some fishing. That would be awesome.
You're based in Portland right now. Is it the mecca that pop culture claims?
The singer and I live in Portland, two of our guys now are from California, and another is from Seattle. But we're pretty much always based in Portland. We all have this house and we live together, and it's cute and fun. As a scene, Portland is intense. There's something going on every night of the week, and they're pretty supportive of art in general. It is a hard scene to get into, though, and the town didn't really take us in there for years. We're from Alaska, and we're not natives. But now we get along really well, and we've been here so long that they accept us and we feel like we're actually a part of things.
How has the major label changed the band's dynamic?
We always want to change. We always want to keep moving and never want to get stuck in the same place. Every album and tour, we do things differently. Every two tours, we'll even switch up the old songs and keep ourselves on our toes and create new versions. When people play the same songs forever, it starts to no longer be fun. That happens to a lot of bands: I've seen guys on stage that don't look like they're having any fun, and that is reflected to the audience.
[The biggest change with Atlantic] is just help. It's really nice to have help. It's kind of weird: Some things are way easier, and others are way harder because there's actually pressure to work now. We have a lot of hands behind us now, which we've really never had before. Before this, we'd put our records out ourselves and have basically eight people working on a record. We've always wanted to make accessible music. We want to make mainstream music, but the kind that is good and creative and has substance. We don't want just poppy lyrics and catchy beats. We want things that can go to the movies and to TV and be intelligent and new.
Do you have a favorite Atlantic Records artist?
Led Zeppelin. That's got to be my top. They're one of my dad's favorite bands, so I've been listening to Led Zeppelin as long as I can remember, and it's pretty crazy to share a label with a band like that, you know?
Your shows are different every day, and they're predicated on spontaneity. How much is practice, and how much of that effect is in spite of practice?
We don't practice very much at all -- at least not the full band. We have a rotating cast of members, so it's mostly just teaching people the songs. Normally, we have a structure and at least kind of know where we're going, but this tour we've let all that go. Usually it's just the drummer, and if he keeps going, we keep going and just ride it and create something and see it through. It's been pretty amazing, and it's been surprising. We no longer know where our shows are going to end up.
Which is your favorite Portugal album?
In some ways, I'd say our newest one, because I'd say it's our best. You always like what you're doing, though, so I feel like that's a cop-out. Beside that -- I won't count that one -- I'd say Censored Colors. It was crazy. We had one song written when we went in there, and we basically did it in our friend's basement in Seattle. It was cold and dank, and we all slept on the floor next to each other like sardines. It was kind of this transition for us to finally realize how to write songs. Before that, it was just a bunch of experimental parts, not really cohesive, and we put that all together. That's how we got here today.
In the past month, the band has lost both keyboardist Ryan Neighbors and your touring drummer. How is the band coping?
We're doing all right. I mean, obviously, we miss our boys. There's no bad blood at all, though, and we're all still friends. Ryan's living at our house right now. But you spend years on the road together, and you get incredibly close. Our new keys player actually played keys on our second album, so he's not like a brand-new hired gun. So I'd say our group right now is really solid -- and it's fun. Because of all these old songs, they kind of add their own style to it, and they're like new songs again. We're learning them in different ways after all this time.
There was no practicing, especially for the drummer. I talked to him on the phone a bunch and was like, "Here are the songs, and you'll need to learn them soon, but we don't actually play them like that on stage." So he basically had to just come out and figure it out. He did amazingly.
Where would you like to see the band in five years?
Everywhere. I'd like to keep doing what we're doing. We want to go to new places, and I just want to keep recording and never go backwards. I never want to move backwards. I want to get to Japan, Africa, New Zealand. There are a lot of places I still have to go.
If you were not a musician, what would you do for a living?
I have no idea. I'd probably just fish for a while, and then I'd have to make money. That's honestly all I know how to do. I also like taking pictures. I imagine I would fish and take a lot of photos. Maybe I could be a fish photographer. I would take photos of fish.
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